President's Speeches & Writings

Data analytics and the liberal arts

April 19, 2016
Conceptual image of people and graphs

The world is awash in data, creating new opportunities in fields such as product development, marketing, and public health, as well as scientific research in areas like genomics, drug discovery, climate science, neuroscience, particle physics, and astronomy. Not surprisingly, colleges are developing programs to train students in data analytics for this emerging work. It is crucial that liberal arts colleges participate in the shaping of this field because data analytics needs experts who can ask the right questions, communicate well, and address ethical concerns and issues.

In short, a liberal arts background gives data analytics its soul.

For instance, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced sweeping reforms to help deal with an estimated 58,000 homeless by using data analytics to identify at-risk families and provide legal assistance to prevent evictions. Another example is healthcare, which already relies heavily on analyzing big data to make better diagnoses and, at times, to save lives.

The challenge presented by “big data” is not technique. Collecting, organizing and analyzing data in today’s world has become fairly routine, especially given advances in technology. The challenge lies in the art, or craft, side of data analytics: how to frame questions correctly, how to bring together interdisciplinary teams to work effectively in analyzing data, and how to communicate results to decision makers and the public. There also are the ethics of data analytics, given that so much of the data are collected in non-traditional and often hidden ways.

One of the best statements on the liberal arts remains William Cronon’s article, “Only Connect.” He defines a liberally educated person as someone who can listen and hear; read and understand; write persuasively; solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems; understand how to get things done; nurture and empower others; see connections that help make sense of the world; and act in creative ways.

It is the capacity to do these things that will drive data analytics forward. What is missing from so many of the early programs is a strong focus on the following:

  • Framing Questions: Too often, we get the right answer to the wrong question. The ability to frame questions is probably the most important role of a liberal arts background in learning to use big data effectively. If we get the question wrong, the answer is irrelevant.
  • Working in Teams: Both the framing of questions and data analysis often will require working in interdisciplinary teams, comprising people who see the world differently. Data analytics will need people who can harness the inherent strength of teams with diverse backgrounds.
  • Communicating Results: Findings need to be communicated well. In other words, technically sophisticated results need to be communicated to top executives in ways that they can understand and make use of in order to reach informed decisions based on facts.
  • Ethical Decision-making: In today’s world, we have access to data that we may or may not want to use. These lines are just starting to come into focus. For data analytics to drive us forward, we need a generation of people shaping the field who see, acknowledge, and grapple with ethical concerns, especially as they relate to issues of privacy and civil liberties.

What might a data analytics program look like? Denison University is one of the few liberal arts colleges to offer a Data Analytics degree.

Denison is uniquely poised to create this program because of its strengths across traditional liberal arts disciplines, excellent mathematics and computer science professors, an engaged and enthusiastic alumni network with access to real-world problem-solving opportunities and internships, and the college’s close proximity to Columbus, Ohio, with its research, business and entrepreneurial communities, including organizations like The Limited, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Battelle Institute.

The major, which will be offered beginning this fall, has four primary components:

  • Acquiring a foundation: Students will take a series of classes in mathematics and computer science to get a solid grounding in the technical side of data analytics.
  • Learning the technique: Students also will take a series of specially designed data analytics courses. Most of these will be project-based, employing both analytical methods and liberal arts skills. Included will be communication skills specific to data analytics, ethics, and interdisciplinary research.
  • Applying technique across disciplines: Students also will select a subject — such as political science, biology, or psychology — and will learn to apply their skills by taking a wide range of courses in that discipline.
  • Pulling it all together: Before they finish the major, students will pull it all together through a required summer internship and a capstone project. Students will take the skills learned in the classroom and practice them in a professional setting. Early pilots included Denison students working in teams, in partnership with prominent alumni, to address two real-world challenges. One worked with Australian law enforcement, using police reports to find ways to predict the frequency and severity of spousal abuse. Another worked on world hunger problems by determining how much food will be needed to feed projected populations.

Along the way, our students will take the traditional Denison core requirements, including writing-intensive courses that stretch across the humanities and social and natural sciences. Finally, the program will infuse ethical questions throughout the students’ coursework and internships.

W. Michael Donovan captured the importance when he wrote that big data and analytics both challenge the liberal arts and need the liberal arts. He wrote, “… 500 years later after the printing press and 800 years after the development of the mechanical clock, the vital contributions of the liberal arts and sciences to humanity are needed, desperately.” He went on to write, “every single discipline must contribute to the intelligent use of big data and maximize its potential.”

Denison’s decision to launch this major challenges two lines of thinking in higher education.

First, we are challenging those who would reduce data analytics to technique with stand-alone programs that have no firm connection to other disciplines. Liberal arts courses help students learn the craft of framing questions, working in teams, communicating results, and asking ethical questions.

Second, we are challenging the liberal arts to stop ceding this ground to pre-professional programs. Liberal arts colleges continue to allow others to draw an odd distinction between pre-professional programs and the liberal arts. Denison is pushing back. We believe the liberal arts prepare people best to succeed in, lead, and shape the professions. Our graduates prove this point every day. In addition to our traditional academic programs that have been doing this for decades, we are developing new academic programs that use the liberal arts to explore where the world is going and to prepare our students to lead in that world.

In a recent article in The Harvard Business Review, Andrew McAfee writes, “Data-driven decisions tend to be better decisions. Leaders will either embrace this fact or be replaced by others who do.” For this to happen in ways that propel us forward, we need leaders who are trained in data analytics from a liberal arts perspective.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.